Beit Transactional Analysis: The Strange Case of the Disappearing Pulpit

Pulitzer Prize winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin (The Bully Pulpit, 2013), quotes muckraker journalist Frank Norris at the turn of the 20th century as saying, “The Pulpit, the Press, and the Novel – these indisputably are the great molders of public opinion and public morals today.” By “pulpit,” Norris meant such preachers as New York’s Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) whom Martin Luther King Jr. labeled “the foremost prophet of our generation”; and maybe, among rabbis, Stephen S. Wise, who was championing unions even as Norris was busting trusts.

So how did it happen that, at least among Jews, the pulpit voice of conscience has virtually disappeared?

In 1984, conservative Lutheran pastor Richard John Neuhaus bemoaned the absence of a religious voice in what he famously labeled “The Naked Public Square.” He went so far as to predict the end of democracy itself, if national opinion was not enriched by conversation rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. As we all know by now, conservatives took him up on his challenge, to the point where, as recently as February 15 (“Republicans, the Religious Right and Evolution,” New York Times), Frank Bruni noted assorted fundamentalist lawmakers sounding more like pastors than politicians by arguing against gay marriage and evolution, but for a national day of prayer as a preferred governmental policy to bring the rain required to fight forest fires and droughts.

Liberal religionists, by contrast, hardly ever call for anything, at least not publicly. Instead of learned sermons, rabbis facilitate discussions on the weekly parashah and lead guided meditations to induce Shabbat quiet. Among Reform rabbis anyway, prophetic exhortation has been replaced by pastoral healing, which, for many, is virtually an obsession.

I am all for synagogues with healing prayers, spirituality and relationship-building. Indeed, I helped pioneer them. But things have gone too far.

The healing movement in synagogues must be understood as a critique of the prophetic style, which took root especially in the 1890s as the Jewish parallel to what Christians called “The Social Gospel.” By the 1950s and ‘60s, it morphed into Civil Rights marches and opposition to the Vietnam War. By the ‘70s, the Jewish community was refocusing its efforts inward, a response to the Six-Day War and the Refusenik movement, which directed prophetic zeal to distinctively Jewish causes. But that was it.

Were we just tired out? Had the civil-rights marches, the anti-war movement, the Six-Day War and the fight for Soviet Jews exhausted our will to change the world?

Whatever the cause, old pulpit-centered rabbis were increasingly castigated as cold, distant, and judgmental: a verdict hastened by the growing feminist critique. Rabbis, we said, should be collaborative and pastoral. Synagogues should be warm and welcoming, a kind of “Beit Transactional Analysis: I’m OK, you’re OK.”

Among rabbis themselves, meanwhile, the critique of their elders was personalized with the vow to balance home and job in ways the old guys never had – to make sure to take time off; and to assure mental balance by setting aside time for personal spirituality. I confess having something to do with the personal spirituality part as well, but again, we have gone too far. We mistakenly saw rabbinic burnout as a necessary consequence of treating one’s rabbinate as a calling, not just a profession; we demonized pulpit rabbis of the past as hierarchical bordering on egomaniacal. And we concluded that because people wanted “warm and welcoming,” that was all they wanted! Let the rabbi be their friend, calling them to personal spiritual wellness and healing.

I am for all of that: warm, welcoming, relational, spiritual, and healing. But synagogues also need to have ideas that matter. Rabbis can hold people’s hand while also holding them to account. Spiritual healing is not inconsistent with prophetic conscience. I don’t mean simplistic reiterations of newspaper op ed columns with a tag-line from Isaiah to outfit them as Jewish. I mean deeply informed discussions of the human condition, our responsibility in a world at war and a nation that is polarized and fragmented. I mean the genuine Jewish call not just to retreat into a deeper life within but to advance toward a better society without.

I teach rabbis; I love them; they are my former students, my colleagues, my best friends, and, overall, the finest human beings you will ever meet. But come on rabbis; we can do better than this. We can be the voice of an enlightened Judaism, in league with science and with God, positing purpose, promise and hope. We can raise the level of national discourse by having something worth saying ourselves – and by saying it eloquently and passionately. If we rise to the occasion, so too will our congregants, because they want something deeper from us even more than we do.


11 responses to “Beit Transactional Analysis: The Strange Case of the Disappearing Pulpit

  1. Bretton-Granatoor, Gary (WUPJ)


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  2. Richard Steinberg

    Quite an indictment! One important piece missing for this thoughtful exhortation is the “business model” that many synagogue use to “judge” their rabbis. A free pulpit means you can say whatever you want, but nothing is ever really free – often times it comes with consequences of the highest cost (The prophets, of course, knew this too.). While I agree with much of what the good rabbi has said in this piece, it is a bit more nuanced and complicated today than it was “in the good old days.”

    Rabbi Richard Steinberg
    Rona Perley Memorial Senior Rabbinic Chair
    Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot
    3652 Michelson Drive
    Irvine, CA 92612
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    • You are right of course. But I am arguing for more than an occasional (and surprising) sermon on a controversial topic. I am advocating regularized thinking from the pulpit, thinking that is evident in the depth with which it is researched, thought through, put together, and delivered. If people appreciate the fact that the rabbi regularly uses “sermon time” to evoke deep thought, then on those occasions when such thought impinges on issues with controversy attached, the chances of negative feedback leading to dire results becomes so much less. I also think we need to “hear” from rabbis in venues other than the sermon slot — in an open forum, for instance, when people expert in other points of view can be heard. I believe issues are multi-contexted — that is, the rabbi may have a Jewish opinion on it, but economists, demographers, sociologists and other experts may have their own positions that should be heard. I want to see the synagogue become part of the public square where these other perspectives are heard alongside the religious one. The problem at the moment is that religion has no voice at all — except for fundamentalist religion that has “cornered” the public market.

  3. L’Shalom Steven garten Rabbi emeritus Temple israel, Ottawa 613-224-1802 613-791-5491

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  4. Reblogged this on The Poetry of Christ and commented:
    It is surprising how close some of these thoughts are to my last post. There is a difference of course – perhaps anticipated by Moses.

  5. Yasher Koach, Rabbi! You are spot-on, as ever. But since I learned from you the relationship of form to content, I think that has a role in this discussion as well: The lack of content-driven prophetic calls from the bimah surely must be connected to the decline of sermons, period, in our shuls. I know that I really only give “sermon sermons” a couple of times a year. As you indicate in your response, above, the challenge is finding other venues to reach community members.

    By the way, I also think your opening quote about “the pulpit, the press, and the novel” as the key molders of public opinion is very interesting – considering that each of those 20th century institutions is in grave crisis. I’m talking about the decline of the book-publishing industry and the nonsense that passes for “reporting” on 24-hour cable news. What can replace “the pulpit, the press, and the novel”? “News” channels that pander to our already-established worldviews? Sarcastic memes on Facebook? Rants in the “comments” section of online news sites?

    • Let me handle your second point first. Yes, all three are in trouble, and I almost addressed that issue myself. The press, at least, has been somewhat marginalized by the new technology, and I suspect novels make less difference today. I cannot imagine a novel like Uncle Tom’s Cabin having the impact that it did. Story has it that Lincoln met Harriet Beecher Stowe and said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” The story is apocryphal — it turns up only in 1896, the year Stowe died (see Daniel R. Vollaro, “Lincoln, Stowe and the “Little Woman-Great War Story…” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 30:1 [2009], p. 18). But you get the point. What novel today would even be suspected of having that impact? Novels appear and are read more than ever, but with less impact.

      I suspect the issue is the multiplication of communication sources. We still have newspapers and novels, but they must compete for attention and influence.

      Now to your main point. We still at least do have novels and newspapers (in abundance), but the difference with sermons is that we no longer actually have them — not very regularly, anyway. Rabbis have become generalists who are expected to do everything: educate children, program, manage the staff, and make house calls. What has suffered is the general area called “thinking.” Sermon-writing is more than putting one’s thoughts on paper. It is equally the exercise in doing the thinking. We end up, then, with a rabbinate that thinks less than it did.

      I do not fault rabbis alone. I fault our system by which rabbis and synagogues collude in shutting down the thinking function of our rabbis. The same systemic error is responsible for preventing any thinking by boards, which go about the business of fiduciary and governing responsibility but rarely spend any time thinking together about “great expectations”: where the synagogue should go, what the synagogue’s calling is nowadays, and such.

      The form of the sermon may have to change. It need not be a long 20-30 minute affair each time rabbis take to the pulpit. But it can be a 10-15 minute exercise in thoughts that arise from applying Jewish wisdom to the world. And most rabbis do not do even that — they haven’t the time to do it responsibly, and instead of seeking support in their effort to do so, they go along with a system that prevents it. The result is banality: how could it be anything else? Synagogues are frequently intellectually banal. That is, they have little to move us.

  6. Lisa Grushcow

    Larry, I hear this loud and clear. I am acutely aware that with everything else I do, my weekly sermons often take a back seat. At my shul, we are trying to take seriously our role of being part of significant conversations in our city and society. I agree 100% on not abdicating that prophetic voice. But significant intellectual firepower every Friday night? I’d love to be able to muster it. But I need to know what I/we can put down of all the other pieces of this work, in order to make the time needed to read, think, reflect and speak on this level on a regular basis. We can’t stop the pastoral piece, the managerial piece, the relational piece. Our synagogues need all these pieces too. The work is great, the day is short, the Master demanding.

  7. You make several good points — yes, certainly, I would agree that sermons should reflect deep thought — but I find that I respectfully disagree with the diagnosis given here.

    First, I object that this piece implies that some link might be found between the feminist critique and shallow thinking:

    “Whatever the cause, old pulpit-centered rabbis were increasingly castigated as cold, distant, and judgmental: a verdict hastened by the growing feminist critique.'”

    The feminist critique, when it is taken seriously, implies a deep re-evaluation of our accepted categories. It is intended to be revolutionary, and as such is hardly shallow.

    It seems to me that what you are bemoaning here is not so much feminism as a shift in the role of the rabbi. And that shift took place in response to some very real changes in our society. We’re also more economically-vulnerable than we used to be.

    Similarly, in the next paragraph, you identify work-life balance as another culprit:

    “Among rabbis themselves, meanwhile, the critique of their elders was personalized with the vow to balance home and job in ways the old guys never had – to make sure to take time off; and to assure mental balance by setting aside time for personal spirituality. I confess having something to do with the personal spirituality part as well, but again, we have gone too far.”

    Personally, I find that having a favorable work/life balance leads to better thinking, not worse.

    “And we concluded that because people wanted “warm and welcoming,” that was all they wanted! Let the rabbi be their friend, calling them to personal spiritual wellness and healing.”

    Here I object to the notion that a pastoral sermonic approach is necessarily lacking in deep thought. In my experience, it is much more demanding to write a sermon that engages in a serious critique congregants’ life-choices than it is to glibly critique the policies of the State Department.

    But thanks for a thought-provoking piece.

    • I very much appreciate your nuancing my position. I did not mean to attack or otherwise to marginalize feminism as a valid and constructive critique. I did mean to say what I said: that feminism has been taken, by some, as a supportive argument for seeing older rabbis (as a class) as “cold, distant and judgmental.” To some extent that was true, but not universally. The problem with all great ideas is that they are watered down into sound bites by people who do not get the depth of the whole picture and a watered down feminism has been used as a justification for all sorts of things that serious feminists (who are very good ! thinkers) would not have countenanced. Drawing our attention to a one-sided rabbinate that did not have time for family, say, is one thing; accusing all old-time rabbis of suffering such a fault is another. Correcting the balance is likewise one thing; casting aspersion on all that the “old-time” rabbis did is another.

      I like your response regarding the possibility of “pastoral-sermonics” having (potentially) deep thought. That is indeed a possibility. I do not find it commonplace however, and again, my objection remains: too many rabbis hide behind being a pastor to the exclusion of exercising any depth about anything.

      As to the statement, “I find that a favorable work/life balance leads to better thinking, not worse,” I do not disagree. But (I am being redundant, but I am at least consistent) too many rabbis cannot legitimately say that. We live in an era where thinking is largely denigrated as old-fashioned and unimportant.

      I am not, that is, opposed to serious feminism; I am opposed to a trend that takes feminism so lightly that it mouths slogans instead of dealing with what feminism has seriously had to say.

      • Thanks, in turn for your nuanced response. I am a congregational rabbi; if you’d like to see examples of my best ‘deep-thought’ pastoral sermons, please consider reading my blog, Godtalk ( — just about everything I’ve posted there has been a sermon at one point or another. Granted, it’s my best stuff, but they’re mostly regular Friday night sermons (as opposed to HIgh Holidays). Thanks again.

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